Life and times
Journalist and author Gautam Malkani
I’VE FINALLY VACATED my self-storage unit. For the first time in seven years, all my belongings reside in my place of residence. No more trekking across London to retrieve a particular frying pan, desk lamp or pair of trainers. No more labyrinth of corridors lined with padlocks.
For four of those years, I more or less lived out of storage – my lodgings ranged from a cousin’s living room to various short-let flats and budget hotels. I would visit the storage unit every few weeks, borrowing and returning items as if it was a library.
Bidding farewell to the unit, I don’t dwell on the reasons and likely symbolism behind my earlier dysfunctional living arrangements. I’m more interested in the specific issues thrown up by living out of self-storage. For instance, when you can only lug around a suitcase or two, you need criteria for selecting and rotating the stuff you retrieve and the stuff you return. The books, the records, the clothing.
To begin with, I’d try to ensure I always had a variety of these things to hand. I figured that would minimise my chances of feeling frustrated at not having access to a particular genre or vibe or colour in the middle of the working week. However, this selection strategy failed. After all, if I was re-reading Kafka, there’d be no point in also having my copy of an Elmore Leonard crime caper to hand. I’d just want more of my Kafka books. Likewise, I learnt that if I borrowed one of my Leonard Cohen records, it would be better to also take some Nick Cave rather than a Daft Punk album. In this way, my selections became more homogenous. Even the clothes I fetched started following this same logic: not so much seasonal as subcultural. Living out of self-storage resulted in more and more hardcore versions of each of my different selves.
MY NEW NOVEL partly explores how social media and search engines can similarly pull people into silos of selfreinforcing predilections and opinions. Because tech companies’ business models are based on personalised ads and content, their algorithms feed us more and more helpings of things we already like to click on.
This week, several people have asked me how I managed to write such a timely novel. But the truth is, I wasn’t trying to be topical. The book is about a young man caring for his sick mother. As his caring role grows more intimate, he feels haunted by the notion of the Oedipal complex. I figured that today’s equivalent of those ancient oracles would be Google and Facebook, both of which have grown eerily predictive and psychic by crunching our digital data.
PERHAPS UNSURPRISINGLY, my flat is now full of boxes. I even stacked a couple on one side of my double bed. I’d been sleeping beside them for days thinking they just contained some old T-shirts. But then I discovered that my clothes were actually acting as bubble wrapping for some of my late mother’s belongings, which I was unable to part with when she died 20 years ago. Their sentimental value hasn’t diminished over time: I still can’t bring myself to donate or dispose of any of them. However, instead of focusing on the obvious symbolism about unresolved grief, I start freaking out over the symbolism of having slept beside what remains of my mother. I’m going to start looking for another self-storage unit.
Distortion, by Gautam Malkani, is published by Unbound, £16.99
I’d visit the storage unit every few weeks, borrowing and returning items as if it was a library